Only about one-third of child sexual assault survivors disclose their assaults during childhood. The reasons for the lack of disclosures are multifaceted: perpetrators excel at maintaining control over children because of power differentials, children may have been explicitly threatened by their perpetrator with consequences if they talk about what has happened to them, and other reasons. Sexual violence—particularly when it occurs within a familial context—is often seen as a private issue not to be discussed with non-family members. When children do disclose, they often minimize the severity of the abuse (London, Bruck, Cecei and Shuman, 2005).
When disclosures do occur, they tend be delayed and gradually unfold over time. Some children struggle to realize that what is happening to them is abuse that should be reported. They know it is something they do not like and do not want to continue, but because of the way the abuse is framed they may not identify their experiences as something that an adult could help them with. In some instances, children have been groomed to believe that their abuse is actually normal behavior.
In a study of women with depression, researchers found that participants who were sexually assaulted as children experienced depression at an earlier age, and were more likely to attempt suicide and engage in deliberate self-harm (Gladston et al., 2004). Survivors of child sexual assault, if victimized again later in life, are more likely to experience tonic immobility. Tonic immobility is a “state of profound motor inhibition typically elicited by a high fear situation that involves a threat and/or restraint… heart rate decreases while body temperature and respiration increase” (Suarez and Gallup, 1976). Survivors who experience tonic immobility are also more likely to feel self-blame and guilt.
Stranger Danger Scenarios
Most parents have conversations with their children about not accepting candy or rides from strangers or engaging in conversation with people they don’t know. The common belief is that the danger comes from a “stranger,” someone the child has never met or doesn’t know well. In reality, most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim—like a family member, classmate or coworker.
Children Will Always Speak Up
Adults often think that children will speak up if they are being abused. In actuality, children are less likely disclosure this information for a variety of reasons: fear of not being taken seriously, thinking the assault was their fault or being threatened by the perpetrator.
Statutory Rape Isn’t Real Rape
The power dynamics between adults and children—even between adults and teenagers—is significant. Sexual violence takes advantage of that power differential.
Children Seduce Adults
Culture often supports and jokes about “jail bait” or the “Lolita” effect: the notion that some girls are sexually precocious and deliberately entice adult men to be sexual with them. In reality, adults have the power over children and are to be held responsible. Additionally, boys who are sexually assaulted by adult females are viewed by society as “lucky” and praised for “scoring” with older women. This is a harmful aspect of rape culture. These cases often get mislabeled as “inappropriate sexual relationships” to downplay their severity, but they should be called what they are: sexual assault and abuse.
Prevention and Awareness in Connecticut Schools
The Department of Children and Families, State Department of Education and Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence worked together to develop a comprehensive statewide sexual assault and abuse prevention and awareness plan to be implemented in all local and regional school districts in Connecticut.